Student view on UPEI strike: 'It certainly isn't a vacation'

Veterinary students say they support faculty labor cause but worry about their studies

Published: March 28, 2023
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Faculty at the University of Prince Edward Island continued to picket on Monday (pictured), one week into a strike in response to stalled labor negotiations.

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Students approaching graduation this spring at the University of Prince Edward Island's Atlantic Veterinary College are being advised by administrators to consider trying to complete their clinical training off-campus owing to a faculty strike with no end in sight.

The students — of which there are 65 in their fourth year, plus three international students who came to the college expressly for clinical rotations — would have to arrange for the training themselves at area practices and at their own expense, according to one of the students, Natalie Heembrock.

Heembrock said officials "met with us last week, one by one, and said they didn't know when this would end," she told the VIN News Service today by phone. "I just started thinking, 'There's only a handful of clinics and an entire graduating class.' Plus, I have no money to pay for travel/accommodation for out-of-province rotations. So I haven't been able to do any of that."

She's fast running out of time. Heembrock needs one more week in surgery II and three weeks in community practice II before graduating, which is scheduled for May 16. She's due to start work at a practice in Nova Scotia two weeks later. But she hasn't seen cases since March 20, when the faculty walked off the job, seeking better pay and working conditions.

The veterinary college Interim Dean John VanLeeuwen told VIN News by email today: "At this point, we do not know how long the strike will last. Decisions on alternative methods of educating students will depend on the duration of the strike and will be taken with the best interests of each student in mind. One option for students is to complete a clinical rotation externally, but every student's needs are considered individually and they are advised according to what is considered best for them."

Until the labor dispute ends, the veterinary college is shuttered, as is most of the campus on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. The veterinary teaching hospital remains open only for emergencies and urgent care.

The faculty strike came after nearly a year of failed negotiations with university officials over a new collective-bargaining agreement. Several veterinary students interviewed by VIN News expressed sympathy for the faculty at the same time that they are stressed by the interruption in their education.

First-year veterinary student Laura Groves has missed two tests and faces a mounting pile of material to learn ahead of final exams at the end of April. "It actually is kind of bothering that the university has referred to this as a 'break,' instead of what it is, a labor dispute," she said.

"This just increases the pressure put on vet students that already face an intense program," she continued. "It certainly isn't a vacation or break. We don't really know how we will be evaluated on the material that we aren't being taught when the strike ends, so it's hard to know how to prepare. A lot of students fear that the semester may get extended, which would bring so many more issues, as students already have summer jobs and travel lined up."

So far, veterinary college administrators have not announced plans to amend the school calendar. "We are supposed to have a town hall meeting tomorrow with administration," Heembrock said. "I don't know how we are going to graduate on time. We'll see what they say."

Up to now, official communications to students about what might happen if the strike continues have been "vague," according to first-year veterinary student Stefani Wilpon, while campus rumors fly that UPEI could scrap the entire semester.

In brief

Apart from an occasional pottery class or poker night, Wilpon spends her time reviewing what she's learned so far in school, even if it's tough to stay engaged. "Professors have released notes for us to look over for newer material; however, they are not allowed to assign us official work over the strike," she reported by email. "We're nearing finals (and I haven't learned anything past midterms, to be completely honest)."

Comparing the abrupt pause to what happened when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Wilpon said, " ... It feels like March 2020 again, where we just don't know what will happen or how long this will last."

With the UPEI strike occurring just ahead of a general election in the province, there's no chance that legislators will force faculty back to work before Parliament convenes on April 4, the day after the election. Even then, Wilpon doesn't want the government meddling in a labor dispute. Despite the consequences of a strike, she supports the faculty.

"In general, I think the union is fighting for some very important things: job security, benefits, better treatment and pay for their sessional and contract professors, better student learning environment, etc.," she said. "I'm the type of person that is all for fighting for things like that."

The two sides have been engaged in contentious negotiations since May 2022. Wilpon thinks UPEI should do more to meet union proposals that, in addition to raising pay and benefits, would reduce class sizes; give faculty more time for research and other responsibilities outside the classroom; enhance diversity, equity, inclusion and indigeneity; and eliminate a requirement that Student Opinion of Teaching Surveys results be included in faculty tenure and promotion files.

One union concern is a workload problem specifically affecting Atlantic Veterinary College faculty — a problem that the administration acknowledges and proposes to address through a separate task force and interim measures in the meanwhile. The union counters that the proposed interim measures are not meaningful but amount to status quo.

Overall, university officials contend that making the union's proposed changes to the three-year contract would cost upward of $350 million and be financially burdensome, so much so that tuition would need to increase 6% for veterinary students and 4% for other programs. "To accept all that the [faculty association] has on the table would require much greater revenue growth," officials said in a news release dated March 21.

Wilpon believes the university is raising the specter of higher tuition as a bargaining tactic. They are "essentially spinning it that the demands are preposterous and would 'make them' hike our tuition," she said.

Veterinary college faculty have been open with information about negotiations, Wilpon said: "Our profs have expressed how they feel bad that we're in this situation and how they don't want our education to suffer from it. Some were for [the strike], and others were more against it, just because it makes life so much harder on all of us."

"I am personally very tired — just mentally exhausted from this," Groves said. "It's hard to find the motivation to study when we don't know how soon tests will happen, and we're out of normal routines. … I feel really bad for the fourth-years on their clinical rotations who are supposed to be only one month away from graduating and are having their rotations at the teaching hospital canceled."

Dr. Peter Foley, an associate professor of small animal internal medicine, echoed Wilpon's sentiments. "Certainly, we didn't want the strike to happen, and we want it to be as short of a period as possible," he said by phone last week. Foley said he does two-hour shifts every weekday on the picket line but would prefer to be back in the classroom.

Declining to say whether he was among the 83% of UPEI faculty who voted in favor of setting a strike deadline during negotiations in February, Foley noted, "That vote wasn't a vote to say we'd strike no matter what, but to give our negotiating team the mandate so they could put it on the table."

The decision to walk out was made weeks later, on March 19, marking the second strike by UPEI faculty since it adopted collective bargaining for faculty in 2001. In spring 2006, faculty walked off the job after negotiations with administrators failed to yield better pay, workload and benefits. With the help of a government-appointed mediator, an agreement was reached two weeks later, and the university extended the semester by several days to make up for the missed instruction time.

Foley, who's worked at UPEI since 2004, recalls the stress of that period and doesn't want to relive it: "We were striking over similar issues, and it's happening all over again. ... There are no lectures right now, no labs, no teaching at the hospital. I really wish it could have been resolved sooner through negotiation instead of a strike."

Asked about the prospect that a large tuition increase will be needed to meet faculty demands, Foley said: "There are different ways to deal with money. One thing you could do is increase tuition, that's true. Another way to deal with it would be to spend the available money in different ways and have different priorities."

While the university administration and faculty struggle over their differences, students struggle not to be left behind.

One student lamented what have been two significant interruptions to schooling during the past six months: "Students have had no shortage of disruptions to their education this year, with [Hurricane] Fiona taking two weeks off our fall semester, and now this."

The student, who asked not to be identified for fear that her opinions might impede her future job prospects in UPEI's small community, said, "I personally believe it is the duty of the administration to bring students back to the classrooms as soon as possible, which is a pressing matter when coursework in the DVM program is as compact and rigorous as ours is."

She added, "I love everything about the Atlantic Veterinary College and its dedicated, kind and brilliant teachers," and said she hopes UPEI administrators "will start to take the strike as seriously as we are."

Update: UPEI classes resumed on April 17 after the faculty union and administration reached an agreement that ended the four-week strike.

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